By Tom Sullivan
September 1, 2008 - 12:53am ET
Barack Obama’s seven year-old daughter, Sasha, said “Hi, Daddy” to his big-screen image after mother Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention in Denver. It was a humanizing moment, those two words perhaps doing more than her mother’s speech to make Obama accessible to voters. MSNBC’s Norah O'Donnell mentioned it the next day, saying, “You have to win people’s hearts before you can win their minds.”
We founded our tiny 527 committee, Blue Century, to do just that. We run local radio ads directed at winning the hearts of independents and swing voters, to plant progressive ideas where they are otherwise mocked. The conservative movement got where it is by using the media to carry its water. It’s time progressives pushed back – beyond the web – using the same tools. The Strangebedfellows coalition is already doing it, as is MoveOn, Think Progress and OurFuture.org.
Why doesn’t the Democratic Party do it? Because it is not in the mission statement. Politicians sell themselves. Parties sell their slates. That is their job. This change will have to originate outside the Beltway. Working to undo decades of conservative messaging that has poisoned the political well is our job. That, and moving beyond selecting candidates by their salable personalities and ability to raise large sums of campaign cash. A movement has to be broader and deeper than its leaders to be enduring.
Digby wondered in these pages just how we can push forward a progressive agenda:
So, the question for the movement seems to me to be less whether progressives recognize this moment, or agree on the agenda, which I think we do. We have also become pragmatic in our expectations of a new administration and take seriously FDR's admonition that a sympathetic president must nevertheless be "made to" do it. The next question then, in discussing this progressive political moment, is how.
By what processes can a progressive movement "make them do it?" I don't have the answers for that, but I think we'd better start focusing on it.
The American Left has been steamrolled for decades by the well-funded conservative juggernaut. Here is just one way for the little guys to push back. Progressives can mount a fifty-state, grassroots media offensive to promote our view of America with very little money, infrastructure or coordination. Offense is not about playing defense harder. Playing offense means promoting our own ideas instead of devoting all our time to refuting disinformation from political opponents. Let them play defense for a change.
This year, we few will spend under $10,000 running homemade “get out the vote” ads promoting progressive themes on local radio from January through the election. They run not only on progressive radio, but on the Rush Limbaugh channel during drive time on a local talk show heard in much of our congressional district – one out of the 435 nationwide.
Can we afford to blanket the airwaves? No. Funds are limited. The spots run only a few times a day on select channels. And sure, a small group of middle-class activists can’t pull this off in New York, Chicago or Boston. But those markets aren’t where progressives are weakest. They are weakest in red-state America, where many media markets are small and advertising is more affordable. So rather than abandon the field to conservative media giants, progressives should use their limited resources as creatively as possible to target red-state voters. (I originally described that approach here.)
Advertising is the corporate media’s biggest weakness. Show up with money in hand and they will talk to you. In small markets like ours, stations have been willing to work with us. Because winning hearts and changing minds is not tied to the election cycle, there is no time limit. We do the best we can with whatever cash we can muster. Welcome to grassroots activism.
The time is ripe. When Barack Obama said in his acceptance speech, “I stand before you tonight because all across America something is stirring,” he was right. He has tapped into it. Here are a few spots we have been running for months. You will recognize common-ground themes Obama used in our spots, some written over a year ago:
[Left Behind audio, 30 sec.]
VO: Think No Child Left Behind is a goal everyone can embrace? Then why not No Worker Left Behind? No Family Left Behind? No American Left Behind?
VO: We train our soldiers – never leave a team member behind. It’s a code of honor. Why is that good enough for our troops, but not the rest of us? Been struggling as an Army of One? Don’t stand alone.
VO: Register. Vote. Volunteer. Learn more at BlueCentury.org.
[Broken Windows audio, 30 sec.]
VO: You wouldn’t let the lawn go to seed or leave broken windows broken. You worked hard for your home. And the longer you let things go, the more it takes to set them right. With collapsing bridges, overtaxed power girds and decaying infrastructure, isn’t it time we felt the same way about the home … we call our country?
VO: Take ownership in America. Register. Vote. Volunteer. A message from BlueCentury.org.
[Six Million audio, 30 sec.]
SFX: Six Million Dollar Man-style lead in
VO1: New York: a city shaken, New Orleans: a city drowned, the
heartland: in disrepair. Yet, dependent on foreign oil and foreign banks, America remains resilient.
SFX: Electronic sounds
VO2: We can rebuild her. We have the technology. We can make her
better than she was – better, stronger, more competitive. But she needs heroes – like the one inside you.
VO: Register. Vote. Volunteer. Learn more at BlueCentury.org.
To build a movement, we have to meet people where they are and lead them to where we are. Instead of attacking conservative memes voters already accept, these spots embrace them, then broaden them – a kind of political aikido taking them in a progressive direction. The messages advocate no programs or policies, just progressive themes. It is a kind of transpartisan approach. Hearts first. Heads later.
Progressives have to expand beyond Lakoff’s reframing of issues into rebranding. People vote their identities and we need them to identify with us again, so we look for common-ground themes. Bare knuckle tactics work in elections – and there has not been enough of that from Democrats in 2008. But rather than just hurting political opponents to prove our toughness, progressives should focus more on winning over the crowd. That’s where the votes are. We need strategies for winning hearts and changing minds over the long term. Get Americans to think like progressives again and they will start voting like progressives again. Instead of just promoting politicians we hope will pull from the front, we should push more from behind and expand the constituency for change. That’s one way to “make them do it.”
Mounting grassroots radio campaigns in smaller markets in all fifty states can help accomplish this, and do what Howard Dean's Internet campaign did: make politics more accessible to ordinary people. Today anyone can produce radio spots without expensive recording facilities, and run them without being millionaires. AM – where most talk radio is – is inexpensive, especially in smaller markets. Some of the spots we run cost as little as $7 for 30 seconds. If they sound a bit homemade, fine. They are.
Almost anyone can do it. Almost anywhere. That's the point.
What we see among older political hands is a reluctance to try anything new like this, a “Shut up kid; when we want you opinion, we’ll ask for it” attitude. When you fear change, you get more of the same. That just won't cut it. There is always an election at stake, always a reason not to rock the boat, always a reason for not trying anything new. Radio is not the only way to promote a progressive future. It is just what we are trying, asking no permission, accepting help where we can get it.
Locally funded, locally produced progressive messages can help erode conservative media dominance, activate our base, win over independents and swing voters, and inspire both veteran and new volunteers. They will be heard long after listeners have tuned out attack ads. By keeping the effort modest, grassroots ads can run year round promoting our message, winning hearts, changing minds and mobilizing new voters.
Win their hearts, and their heads – and votes – will follow.
Help us spread the word about these important stories...
Email to a friend
Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future